What Is a Work Visa?

A work visa is a legal document that allows a foreign citizen to travel to, live in, and work in the United States, typically temporarily. U.S. employers are required to ask for proof of work from foreigners. Otherwise, they face legal problems.

Why Is a Work Visa Important?

The U.S. government has a long list of types of work visas, depending on the kind of work you will be doing. Before you can travel to the United States, you must get a visa, whether it's a work visa or another type of visa. A visa alone does not guarantee your entry into the United States. Instead, it means someone at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate has determined you're eligible to work in this country.

Why Do You Want a U.S. Work Visa?

The United States' economy is the world's largest. It's many job opportunities appeal to people around the world. The U.S. visa program is very complicated, and it processes millions of visas for immigrants and non-immigrants every year. Other than workers, people getting visas include:

  • Family members
  • Investors
  • Business people

Who Needs a Work Visa?

Citizens of foreign nations who want to travel to the U.S. for work purposes need a work visa.

How to Get a Work Visa

You can apply for a work visa at your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. UpCounsel has more information on obtaining specific types of work visas:

Who Needs a Work Permit?

If you are already in the United States on a visa that doesn't give you permission to work, you need a separate work permit to get a job. Anyone wishing to work in the U.S. who doesn't already have permission to do so must get a work permit. You must apply for this permit with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and receive it before you can accept employment and start working.

A work permit is a photo I.D. card that looks like a driver's license. It's also called an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). You show this to your employers to prove you can work in the U.S. legally.

Who Qualifies for a Work Permit?

  • K-1 fiance visa holders
  • Those with U.S. political asylum
  • People with pending green card applications. A green card grants legal permission for a foreigner to live and work in the U.S. permanently.
  • Spouses of people in the U.S. on visas
  • F-1 students getting Optional Practical Training (OPT)
  • F-1 students who are having economic hardship
  • Those with Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
  • People with Deferred Enforced Departure (DED)

Find a complete list at the USCIS website.

Who Cannot Get a Work Permit From USCIS?

  • Tourists (B-1 Visa)
  • Undocumented immigrants

How to Apply

File your application (Form I-765) with USCIS. Provide attached documents to show you are eligible for a work permit. Attach a photo and pay the fee, if required. Not every kind of applicant has to pay a fee. Put the application in the mail, and expect a reply within several weeks.

When Don't You Need a Work Permit?

If you have a green card, you do not need a work visa. Your green card automatically gives you permission to work in the United States.

If you have become a U.S. citizen, you do not need a work visa. Your U.S. passport and naturalization papers serve as your proof to work.

How Is a Work Visa Different From a Green Card?

A U.S. green card lets you live and work in the United States permanently. Some types of green cards require the U.S. Department of Labor to show a worker shortage in a certain geographic area that the potential green card holders can fill. Those green cards also require the Department of Labor to show that the immigrant won't be removing an American citizen from a job.

Green Card Lotteries

Some immigrants get green cards through a lottery program, also known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. Every year, 50,000 possible immigrants receive green cards through the lottery. You can apply for free online. Only nationals from certain countries are eligible. You can find a list of eligibility requirements posted with the free application.

Types of Work Visas and Green Cards in the United States

Work visas make it possible for foreigners to live and work in the United States. Some work visas offer extensions that eventually allow foreigners to live in the U.S. permanently. Both work visas and green cards are designed to attract a variety of workers to the United States. You can get either an employment-based or family member green card. Types of visas and green cards include:

  • H1-B Work Visa: For non-immigrant foreign workers under an employer sponsor to work in the U.S. for a specialty occupation. People who qualify for this visa are educated, have a relationship with a specific employer, have an in-demand occupation, and/or earn more than average for that job. The U.S. only grants 65,000 H1-Bs every year.
  • H1-B1 Work Visa: For Chilean and Singaporean workers with employers who act as sponsors, to live and work in the U.S. temporarily.
  • H2-A Work Visa: For foreign agricultural workers to take seasonal, temporary work in the United States, as long as American workers can't fill the positions.
  • H2-B Work Visa: For foreign workers to take seasonal, temporary work in a range of nonagricultural U.S. industries. Only 66,000 people get this kind of visa every year. The visas go to people working in industries that lack American workers to fill positions. Examples of these seasonal positions include: truck driver, resort employees, and amusement park workers.
  • I Work Visa: A temporary work visa for foreign members of the media, including press, film, and radio.
  • L1 Work Visa: Senior and important employees from international companies receive sponsorship from their employer to work in the U.S.
  • O1 Work Visa: For foreign workers under an employer or agency sponsor, who have extraordinary talent or skills, to work temporarily in the U.S.
  • P1 Work Visa: For internationally known entertainers and athletes to perform or compete in a specific U.S. event.
  • P2 Work Visa: A reciprocal exchange program for international artists and entertainers, to perform in the U.S. temporarily.
  • P3 Work Visa: For international artists and entertainers who will perform in a culturally unique but temporary program in the United States.
  • Q1 Work Visa: For foreigners to participate in international cultural exchange programs with the U.S.
  • R1 Work Visa: For foreign religious workers working on behalf of a nonprofit religious organization in the U.S.
  • TN Work Visa: For Canadians and Mexicans to work temporarily for an employee sponsor in the U.S. For nonimmigrant professionals via NAFTA. You have to be a citizen of Mexico or Canada to apply for this visa. It is a “fast” visa to get, but only certain professionals in a few industries qualify. These include people working in medicine, science, or other professional fields.
  • E3 Work Visa: For Australian citizens to work temporarily for an employee sponsor in the U.S.
  • E Treaty Trader/Investor Work Visa: For foreign employees of companies who are registered treaty traders or investors with the United States. They are also called E-1 and E-2 work visas.
  • J-1 Visa: Known as the "exchange visitor visa," this is for foreign nationals who want to take part in exchange programs, either work- or study-based, in the U.S. When the visa expires, the foreigner returns home with an appreciation of American culture.
  • Student Visa: If you have a student permit, you can work on campus during year one of studies. Off-campus work is not permitted. After academic year one, those on student visas have three work opportunities available: curricular practical training, optional practical training (either before or after you finish your degree), and a STEM optional practical training extension.
  • Working Holiday Visa: Also known as an Exchange Visa, for foreigners to work and study in the U.S. to experience American culture.
  • EB1 Green Card: For priority workers with permanent employment opportunities in the U.S., with exceptional skills. People who work in the arts, science, business, athletics, or education qualify. So do notable professors and management professionals getting transfers to the U.S.
  • EB 2 Green Card: For priority workers with permanent employment opportunities in the U.S., with extraordinary skills and advanced degrees. You qualify if you work in business, science, or the arts. You also qualify if you’re a doctor who will practice an underserved category of medicine in the U.S.
  • EB 3 Green Card: Permanent employment opportunities for professional, skilled, and other workers. You need two years of training plus experience or a bachelor’s degree. Some unskilled workers also qualify.
  • EB 4 Green Card: Permanent U.S. employment opportunities for special immigrants. This category includes religious workers, U.S. government employees (current or former) who are abroad, and U.S. Armed Forces translators.
  • EB 5 Green Card: For entrepreneurs investing in business enterprises in the United States.

The H1-B Visa

The U.S. government issues up to 65,000 H1-B visas for college-educated professionals every year. These work visas go to people who will contribute economically to America. The 65,000 person cap is to protect U.S. workers in the job market.

Qualifying occupations and fields include:

  • Accountants
  • Architects
  • Computer analysts
  • Database administrators
  • Doctors
  • Engineers
  • Financial analysts
  • Lawyers
  • Nurses
  • Programmers
  • Scientists
  • Web Designers

To get an H1-B Visa:

  • Your employer must submit the application for you
  • You need a Bachelor’s degree or, in individual cases, previous work experience that can serve as a substitute
  • Your employer must show that no U.S. worker can fill the position they’re hiring you for

Preferences

Five preference classes exist for employment-based visas in the U.S. The order of preferences doesn’t reflect how easy it is to get that type of visa.

  • First Preference - people with “extraordinary abilities,” leading professors and researchers in their fields, and multinational managers and executives
  • Second Preference - people who hold advanced degrees and have “exceptional abilities”
  • Third Preference - skilled workers and professionals
  • Fourth Preference - “special immigrants,” which includes religious workers and people who are trying to get citizenship again.
  • Fifth Preference - people coming to this country to invest a certain amount of money in employment creation.

The Application Guide for the H1-B Work Visa from U.S. Immigration Support is a good resource for applying.

If you don’t have a college degree, look at the H2-B Visa instead. If you’re Canadian or Mexican, try the TN Visa. If you’re Australian, look at the E-3 Treaty Professional Visa.

Examples of Work Visas in Other Countries

Germany

Citizens of certain countries and the EU can enter Germany without a visa. After going to Germany, these foreigners can apply for a residence permit for work. If you're not a citizen of the countries listed below, you need your visa before you enter Germany.

  • All EU Countries
  • United States
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Israel
  • Japan
  • New Zealand
  • Switzerland
  • Republic of Korea

The Aliens' Office and the Work Office must approve your application. After that, the Embassy will give you a visa, which is your residence permit and your authorization to work. You don't need a separate work permit.

To complete the application process, you need:

  • Two complete application forms
  • Two passport pictures
  • A valid national passport
  • A letter of intent or an employment contract from your German employer
  • A utility bill or your driver's license containing your address, as proof of residence where you'll be applying
  • Photocopies of all documents, plus insurance, and a 60 Euro fee

If you aren't from the EU, the German Republic's Immigration Law of 2005 offers three types of work permits. Each has its own set of requirements:

  • General Employment
    • To get a work visa in general employment, you must contribute to the German economy. You need either a vocational qualification or a job offer.
    • To apply, you'll need:
      • To fill out an application for a residence permit
      • Two color passport pictures
      • A valid national passport
      • Two copies of your vocational qualifications
      • A letter or contract from the German company you'll work for, including how you'll be employed
  • Self-Employment
    • Your residence permit for self-employment is valid for three years. If you're successful in your business, you can extend that time.
    • People applying for a residence permit who are self-employed must:
      • Fulfill Germany's needs
      • Benefit the economy
      • Have written confirmation for your capital loan and need no other funds outside that loan
    • To make sure your business is sustainable, you also must have the following:
      • A practical business plan
      • Relevant business experience
      • Money to invest in Germany
      • An impact on employment and skills for workers
      • A contribution to innovation or research
    • Required documentation includes:
      • Your residence permit application
      • Two passport pictures
      • Your valid passport
      • A description of your business, which includes how you meet the application criteria
      • Proof you have the funds to start your business
      • Proof you have pension means if you're over 45
  • Specialist Professional
    • Germany wants to specifically attract three kinds of specialist professionals:
      • Graduates with specialized knowledge or experience
      • University professors with great career highlights
      • Managers who make no less than 86,400 Euros a year and who already have job offers
    • You also need:
      • To be able to become part of German society
      • Financial stability
      • An employment contract
    • To apply, you need:
      • An application for the residence permit
      • Two passport pictures
      • Your valid national passport
      • Documentation showing your knowledge and experience
      • A letter from your German employer, including employment contract, plus a description of the work you'll be doing

South Africa

You can get a general work visa in South Africa for the length of your employment contract, as long as that period isn't longer than five years. Within six months of getting the visa, and once a year after that, you must show the Director-General proof that you're still employed. This includes the terms and conditions and a description of your job.

Cyprus

If you're still abroad, your future employer can submit your application for a work permit. It goes to the Civil Registry and Migration Department via the District Aliens and Immigration Branch of the Police. Along with the application, you must send in a work contract with a stamp from the Department of Labour of the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance. If the Ministry determines that no Cypriots can fill specific professions or jobs, it recommends employing foreigners. After that, the application goes to the Civil Registry and Migration Department to make sure nothing in your history would keep you from coming to Cyprus. Then, you get issued your work and entry permits.

To apply you need:

  • Your application on the forms M.58 and M.64
  • A copy of your passport
  • A certificate of your clean criminal record
  • Medical documents
  • A bank letter for 200 to 500 Cyprus Pounds that's valid for six months after your work contract expires. This is for possible repatriation costs.
  • Your stamped work contract, which also needs a revenue stamp from the Revenue Stamps Registrar
  • The 20 Cyprus Pounds fee for submitting the application

To renew your work permit, you must register with the District Aliens and Immigration Branch of the Police. That requires a fee of 20 Cyprus Pounds, three pictures of you, and your passport. Then you must fill out and send in form M.61 to the District Aliens and Immigration Branch of the Police. You also have to pay the fee of 20 Cyprus Pounds.

Seek Legal Counsel

For help getting a work visa in the United States, search UpCounsel for qualified lawyers in your area. Get the visa and immigration expertise you need to fill out your applications and start the process.